Ireland-based e|net has serious global ambitions in telecoms
e|net plans to offer internet access to half the planet who don’t have it in a cost-effective way
David C. McCourt: “Most businesses start from the point of view that says ‘how can I get the most [money] from my customer’? We look at it saying, ‘what can the customer afford and how then can we deliver at that price’?”
With the acquisition of e|net, Irish-American telecoms entrepreneur David McCourt reckons he and his main partner, Walter Scott of Berkshire Hathaway, can build an operation capable of delivering internet access to a good slice of the world’s three billion people who don’t yet have it.
The aim is not so much to turn e|net into a bigger player on the Irish scene – that too – but to make it a global player.
e|net, registered as e-Nasc Eireann Teoranta, is based in Limerick and Dublin and currently employs about 60 people. It’s a private company whose success has been based on a 2004 public-private partnership after the then government resolved that internet access across the State was far too low.
A contract gave e|net the exclusive concession to provide individuals and companies internet access, via an open access infrastructure known as Metropolitan Area Networks. Currently there are 94 fibre-optic rings around urban areas doing this.
About six months ago, McCourt and Scott set up Granahan McCourt Capital Dublin, a US-based vehicle for investing in telecoms. Prior to that, they also acquired interests in three other companies – in Dusseldorf, Manchester and Smithfield, North Carolina. Taken together, McCourt says he believes the four companies are capable of having a major global impact.
“We are now the largest designer and engineering company of satellite terminal equipment, terminal equipment meaning what the satellite speaks to on the ground,” McCourt said in an interview this week.
Three billion people, close to half the world’s population and mostly in the developing world, do not have internet access. McCourt and Scott, whose e|net investment comes through a private family trust, think that internet access can be delivered through this clutch of companies, including the newly acquired e|net.
“Internet access is now a necessary utility. It’s not about some kid needing to be on Facebook. It’s about education, healthcare, communication and the cost of government. There are loads of basic, fundamental reasons why you need internet access.
“We believe that a combination of public and private partnership is what is needed and what e|net is, and, using satellite technology, predictive software and memory storage, you put all those together you can deliver a product that is cost effective and within the means of many of those three billion people.”
So, can e|net become a world player on such a massive scale? The evidence from McCourt’s business career suggests a good track record.
Aged 55, he grew up in Boston, one of seven children in what he regards as a typical Irish-American family which included two grandparents living adjacent to the main family home in the Watertown area, west of the city.
McCourt is more than averagely conscious of his Irish background. “It’s hard to take the Irishness out of someone if it’s there,” he says.
Family roots in Tyrone and Clare have propelled him back here. Although living in Princeton, New Jersey, with his wife Deborah, son David (23) and daughter Alexandra (20), he also owns a substantial house in Newmarket on Fergus and takes an active part in the Farmleigh House diaspora process.
Next weekend when the Global Irish Economic Forum, to give it its official title, meets in Dublin Castle, he will chair a group discussion on digital technologies.
McCourt did not begin his career in business. Rather, he studied sociology at George Washington University in Washington DC. It was only while working in the office of Tip O’Neill that he became interested in cable television, an issue that crossed the then House speaker’s desk.
The problem was a public and business demand for cable TV running up against huge installation costs. McCourt developed a way of delivering cable to condominiums – “you built the condo around the cable, instead of running cable to the condo”, he says – that cut installation and delivery costs by some 80 per cent.
He founded Corporate Communications Network, which expanded by acquisitions and merger (with MFS Communications) during the 1980s, the end result, MSF/McCourt, being swallowed by MCI Worldcom for €14.6 billion in the early 1990s. According to McCourt, he managed to “lock in” the value of his shareholding “so when the dotcom collapse came, my share value was protected at $70 per share”. “Once again, I was just lucky – a bit like Forest Gump,” he quips.
He subsequently built other companies, notably McCourt Kiewit International, a UK-based designer and builder of telecommunication systems across Europe, one of a number of partnerships with Peter Kiewit Sons, Inc. He also created a TV station in Grenada, Discovery TV (no relation of the Discovery Channel), which scooped an Emmy award for a children’s programme and which was eventually sold, McCourt holding on to a production arm through which he makes documentaries, including one with actress Meg Ryan that looked at sectarian education in Northern Ireland.
A spell caballing in Mexico and then back to the States to buy, with Walter Scott, a small Pennsylvania-based telecoms company has now brought him to Ireland and e|net.
McCourt puts his success down, in part at least, to having the focus of his businesses tilted more in the direction of the user, and what they can afford to pay, than the shareholder, and maximising short-term gain. “Most businesses start from the point of view that says ‘how can I get the most [money] from my customer’? We look at it saying, ‘what can the customer afford and how then can we deliver at that price’?
“So, can we design and build a company in Dublin that can become a world leader in delivering triple play internet – voice, video and data – to three billion people? Yes, I think so.
“This isn’t a company for Ireland; it is for the rest of the world but Dublin can be the base for this. We need to take on loads of people, smart, well-educated people in engineering, financial planning and analysis, in sales; classically trained people across the board, people who have done the basics and worked their way up,” he says.